Perfect Sound Forever

John Coltrane

Photo: John Coltrane Home

Stellar Regions
by John Howard (October 2000)

It has become a bit of a cliche to say that Coltrane was great. Indeed, he was Beethoven to Charlie Parker's Mozart, looming large over jazz while he lived and nearly eclipsing it at points after he had died. There is more written about him than just about any jazz artist and he is (chronologically) the last of the musicians that both the avant garders and the neo conservatives agree on. He both anticipated and then surpassed Ornette's innovations. He is, in many ways, bigger than jazz itself, a saintly icon who died too young but left behind a complete and overwhelming body of work.

Coltrane' s music after he started leading his own groups has always been divided into three periods. The first, from 1959-1961 when he was on Atlantic Records, was perhaps the pinnacle of hard bop. His middle period (roughly 1962 to 1964) was spent recording for Impulse with his "classic" quartet of Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner and was capped by the astounding A Love Supreme. But, the portion of his body of work that causes the most consternation is his later period, from the middle of 1965 to his death in 1967.

Greatly influenced by the younger generation of radical improvisers, Coltrane's recordings and concerts became increasingly abstract and he was joined onstage by firebreathers like Archie Shepp. For the second time in his career, a debate raged as to whether he had gone too far. The battle reached a crescendo over the 1965 Down Beat Jazz Festival, a donnybrook in which Coltrane and Shepp blasted the audience in half: half booed and howled in anger and the other half rose to their feet and cheered their approval, a la the Rites of Spring premiere in 1913. This polarized reaction to the performance gave it the sheen of an "event" and it has entered jazz lore (along with a Titans of Tenor concert that Sonny Rollins walked away from) as one of the "times Coltrane went too far." This was the popular pinnacle of the "new thing" and the free jazzers felt enormously powerful and righteous, and their profile was high as the jazz world debated their merits, but it was also a time when more mainstream listeners thought Coltrane and his minions were attempting to destroy jazz. To be honest, they were right.

Freed from harmonic restriction by Miles and Ornette, nudged towards a conception of music as sound by Ayler and armed with his own innovations as to the playing of the saxophone, Coltrane tried to change music itself. He became mystical and abstract, preoccupied with spiritual matters and intent on channeling that through his horn. He ate acid, he remarried and had kids and then put his wife in the band. But he also developed a new sound for a jazz quartet, one that was at once tighter and freer.

The key to this new music was the harmonic blanket style of piano playing used by Alice Coltrane. Diametrically opposed to McCoy Tyner's driving, harmonically dense sound, her piano was like a shroud. Draped around a flexing and free-moving rhythm section, it provided an omni-directional backdrop for the horn. As far as Coltrane's sax had become hard as ice, but with a enormous vibrato that gave it a bathetic sheen, eliminating the smears and rawness that had characterized his playing in the previous 3 years. He rarely played the soprano, focusing on the full bodied and more versatile sound of the tenor. So equipped, the quartet (or quintet, depending) would ebb and flow and tighten and loosen according to the emotional needs of the music.

These new songs would start off as ballads and end up as agitated ruminations, or they would be agitated from the beginning building up a huge amount of momentum without ever coming near a steady pulse. Coltrane's playing was intensely melodic and often a solo would consist of cascading and childlike melodies, bounced off of the rolling rhythm section. There were no more "sheets of sound". This was very sophisticated music, and as your ears get adjusted to the sound, you become more aware of how structured this seemingly "free" jazz is.

This paints enough of a picture of the music. But where to start to listen? Coltrane's catalog is enormous and has been reissued and reconfigured many times. Just for fun, we'll say the late period begins with Ascension and start there. This is very partial and very subjective.

Ascension - 1965 - Essential. Opinion constantly changes as to its worth, but for me the passion of the playing trumps all. It is a who's who lineup of the monsters of free jazz c.1965 and everyone sounds great, Shepp's solo is particularly good, as is Dewey Johnson's (!). Problem: Both versions (long story) are coupled with a few relatively inconsequential works (Selflessness. Kulu Se Mama) and the massively underrated Om. It's a two cd set, and is pretty much worth it, but then they went and called it The Major Works of John Coltrane. Uhhhh. No. Ascension is major, the rest are not at all. But don't you worry about it. Included in it rightfully, in my opinion, is Om. Over a very free tempo, two basses set up a sound that is not a little bit like a rainforest. Kalimbas, shrieking horns and babbling about "clarified butter" make this a decidedly odd and wonderful listening experience. It may be one of Coltrane's warmest records.

Live in Seattle - 1965 - Righteous Maelstrom. Three horn blowouts, hooting, screaming, drums aflail BBOOM! Swirling, roiling ballads. This is the final death - throes of the classic quartet and the lines are clearly drawn, Coltrane and Sanders on one side (with an assist from Donald Garrett) and Tyner and Jones on the other. Jimmy Garrison mediates between the two factions providing lengthy bass solos that sound like sermons. Its everything the critics called it and more. Pompous, god bothering, formless, and chaotic, But it is also passionate and intelligent, the sound of 6 very advanced humans working to expand the human frame of reference. A Monster.

Meditations - 1965-6 - Maybe the high water mark. Brilliantly conceived and executed, it features both Rashied Ali and Elvin Jones together. Unfortunately they could not stand each other and this arrangement did not last long. A bummer, as they mesh perfectly, their sounds mingle and they create a symphony of drums. Pharaoh Sanders was now a permanent member of the group adding a genuine connection to the new generation of out jazzers. As if in response to this challenge, this was the last hurrah for both Jones and Tyner, and they were out of the group not too long after the album was released. Honorable mention goes to First Meditations, another album that is essentially the same suite played by the classic quartet sans Ali and Sanders.

Live in Japan - 1966 - Enormous and lush, like huge tracts of uncharted land, this is music that sounds different almost every time you hear it. Alice's piano paintings were never more colorful, and Coltrane and Sanders duel out into the stratosphere. Warning: These songs are LOOONG, some are nearly as long as an hour. Not a place for beginners. That said, it is beautiful music, abstract and beatific. Wonderfully recorded as well. The songs are so long that as a listener you interact with the music to structure it in a way that you can understand. High praise, in my book.

Interstellar Space - 1967 - Tight as shit duets with Rashied Ali. Coltrane's playing on this is amazing, a clinic on saxophone technique. Ali's more spacious drum style opens up avenues that Elvin consciously closed off and Coltrane strides right down them with purpose, grace and a sax tone harder than a diamond. Unlike Live in Japan, this is a perfect place to begin investigating later Trane. The songs are short, and there is more aggression than there is on most of the later stuff.

Stellar Regions - 1967 (1996) - This is probably the fullest realization of the later quartet sound. It features shorter songs, strong melodies and solos that seem to grow organically out of the songs, so that it becomes difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. This one features many great examples of the tightening and loosening that I was writing about above. Songs start out as a lovely melody statement, gradually building in intensity until they become agitated and roiling, and yet they still seem to contain a nugget of quiescence. This was discovered in the 1990's in a Coltrane family closet. Amazing. From non-existent to one of Coltrane's greatest albums in one jump. This gets my "most underrated" vote.

Others that should get mentioned: Infinity, which is a strings album assembled posthumously by Alice Coltrane, Cosmic Music, which features more of late quartet's playing and Expression, the last album that Coltrane personally assembled. A full accounting of this music reveals that after a period of augmentation and experimentation, Coltrane was back to basics. He had a dynamic and adventurous band and had moved away from suites and back to a more tune oriented approach. Some of the later songs (Peace on Earth, Leo) are among his greatest. Far from being the aimless bleating of a confused man, this music is a purposeful attempt to develop a new language for the jazz quartet. Very few have picked up the gauntlet. Those who have, however (such as David Ware, Marilyn Crispell, Charles Gayle and Matthew Shipp) have further moved the boundaries of modern jazz. To me, the later period is actually the heart of Coltrane's music, the time when he began to realize that music he must have been hearing in his head for so long.

Also see our articles on Coltrane's Interstellar Space & Trane biographer Lewis Porer

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER